Sunday, May 22, 2022

The Mischief That Nurtures Us

You are well into your twelfth year of teaching a course called Writing Personal History FOA.  The FOA abbreviates "For Older Adults."  One of your qualifications for teaching this class has its origin in the fact of your own status as an older adult, a fact that brings you countless occasions of amusement.  

In recent weeks your own "OA" status was born out when you had occasion to check the status of one of your many writing pseudonyms. In this case, you sought the name Craig Barstow on the Amazon books pages.  Sure enough, Craig appeared in the role of author for two titles, The Lady of the Line and The Virgin of Spare Rib Hill, the former bearing the copyright date of 1960, the latter copyrighted in 1961.

Sure enough, Craig appears as well for The Reluctant Lawman, published in March of this year.  He is also credited with authorship on The Robber Barons, scheduled for August of 2022.  The publisher of the 1960s titles has long gone defunct.  The two more recent titles are published by Berkeley Books, an imprint of the Random/Penguin family.

Were you to Wikipedia the publisher of the earlier Barstow titles, you'd see it listed among the offerings of Kozy Books, Roslyn, Long Island, New York.  In a few Facebook groups related to mass-market paperback publishing, Kozy Books  "Cozy up with a Kozy Book" is listed as a sleaze publisher.  Indeed, many of your earlier novels, short stories, and essays appeared in publications with dodgy or condescending titles, in many cases solicited with the notion that your work added a more tiered, dare you say respectable appearance to the publication.

One early novel, Deadly Dolly, was commissioned by a publisher of magazines that fell in the category of so-called "girlie magazines," for which you also wrote essays (rather than articles) or humorous short stories in which sexual relations, indeed, even romantic relations, were not mentioned.

In short, but to your intended point, your publishing history has as many gray hairs as your whiskers.  When you think of this history, you're as likely to linger on a remembered incident or individual from your personal life.

A sixty-odd year gap between appearances of Craig Barstow writings forms a large enough receptacle for your own lengthy history, which crosses paths with current incidents and moments where, even as you composed fiction, you reminisced reality, then incorporated it in the text.  Example:  The Robber Barons has a character who was born in Chicago as Gunnard Hjerstedt.  You have no trouble finding names for your various characters.  All you have to do is listen to them.  They'll tell you their names.  

Not likely you'd invent a Gunnard Hjerstedt, who complains in the pages of your novel of the dangers he experienced as a lad in Chicago's fraught, working-class neighborhoods.  This character changed his name to Laird King, a close approximation of the name of a longtime writer friend who, among other things wrote the book from which Sally Fields's first screen appearance as an actor came.  Gunnard Hjerstedt, at one time an actor, changed his name to Day Keene, under which he wrote well over fifty novels.

Much of this makes you an older adult.  Your actual date of birth ratifies your older adult status.  That does little to tamp down the parts of you who still have the thoughts and feelings you had at seventeen or twenty, when you could expect, from time to time to fall hopelessly and helplessly in love.

As an older adult you have indeed been attracted to admirable young ladies, one of whom you confessed how, were you back to being seventy-five again, you'd be more expressive.

Among the many things you've learned from being attracted to intriguing ladies is the same thing you learned from watching actors you admire.  Restraint. Timing.  You have caused a barista at the estimable Handlebar Coffeehouse to appear in three short stories so far.  You have also listened to the character you have created of her.

In these years of your history, you've spent many times and incidents with actual and imaginary individuals, including those roistering, argumentative, cranky, and sentimental aspects living rent free within you.

Neither a romantic nor a cynic, you've come far enough along to know how each of them believes in the absolute rightness of their vision, the incredible irony of the human condition, and its constant, nurturing mischief.


Thursday, May 19, 2022

When You Got Serious and When You Didn't Part I

 In the earlier stages of your writing life, you'd experienced a few minor satisfactions that came from being published.  That the venues for these publications were well below your hoped-for targets only served to remind you of the hurdles you sought to overcome, the growth you hoped to achieve.

You have a vivid memory of a college-level writing class you'd been at some pains to be admitted to.  The professor had  reading assistant who, he told us, had earned the position because she had some publications for her own work.  One of your submissions for class credit came back with her handwritten marginalia:  This story is ready for publication.

You were at most twenty at that time, awash with omnivorous reading and aflame with the desire to see your work appear in publications reflecting your interests and aspirations.  Even then you understood that the story you'd submitted for class credit was not remotely ready for publication.  So far as you were concerned, publication was a serious business.

For some considerable time, the things you wrote struggled under the weight of your seriousness.  The scant few things of yours to find their way into publication had one thing in common.  You were more concerned with the pleasure of writing them than their ultimate publication.

Flash forward to your last year of the twenties and the publication of your first novel.  This was by no means the first longer work you'd completed in the belief it was a novel, rather it was the first sustained narrative you wrote built on the foundation of your experiences working with a traveling carnival and the awareness of supportive emotional support from the topic, its characters, and the relationship between the reality you experienced and the fictional reality you attempted to evoke.

Flash forward two years, at which point you stood before a display of paperback novels in San Francisco, a city of great importance and affection for you.  In that rack, you saw three novels you'd written pseudononymously and one with your own by-line.

At about this time, many of your friends and associates began to ask you the same question:  "When are you going to get serious?"

Alas, you listened, triggering a long stretch of your attempts to write seriously.  What pleasure can there be for you in seriousness?  Yours is not a serious nature, it is a fun nature.

More to come on this important stepping stone.  For instance, how can you be serious about something that consistently supplies you pleasures?  Don't you take writing seriously?  Why would you persist in trying to achieve ability that has to be coaxed and nourished at every turn.

Leave it for the moment at this:  To undertake writing is the equivalent of taking on a puppy.  One of your first puppies was a notional and preternaturally bright blue tick hound.  Indeed, her son, whom you named Edward Bear, graced you with a life that shone with writing-related metaphor from which you to this present moment draw insight.

Your most recent puppy, a feisty mix of Australian Cattle dog and Australian shepherd, still appears to you in dream and memory, bestowing gift and insight.

Another parallel go go along with your writing experiences resides in the formal education you got in institutions and the education you got in used bookstores, carousing with writers, and working your way through untold thousands of pages wrenched from your typewriter, balled into wads, tossed toward some waste receptical.

All the while, you were moving away from seriousness.

Monday, February 7, 2022

Hauntings from a beloved old ghost

At an early point in your writing career, you were yanked out of a rent-paying, non-writing job by the actor, John Carroll, one of your early screen heroes, thanks to his role in the black-and-white film, The Flying Tigers.

Working with and for John meant working for a man of many moods and facets.  Most days of the week, you reported to his farmlike estate in the northwestern aspects of Los Angeles known as Chatsworth, where you were expected for breakfast, presided over by Carroll's towering, graceful mother, best described as a New Orleans version of the stately actress Maria Ouspenskaya.

Breakfasts often had grits and Creole sausages, but there were also platters of steaks, piles of beignets, and fluffy omelets, interrupted by two of the least disciplined French poodles you'd yet experienced in your mid twenties.

More often than not, these breakfasts consisted of Carroll questioning you about things you'd learned at UCLA and instructing you in such matters as how to write a screenplay, how to direct a scene in a film, and how to write with conviction about things--such as exploration for oil in Texas and Oklahoma, or how to put out fires in oil wells--in which you had no interest.

It was a rare breakfast when Carroll and you were the only two participants.  You breakfasted numeroustimes with one of Carroll's closest friends, who happened tobe one of your mother's favorite actors, Grant Withers.  On at least two occasions, you were asked to loan the shirt you were wearing to the actor Clark Gable because Gable had gotten blod spatters on his from a dynamic you were aware of repeating at least three times:  When Carroll and Gable, frequent brothers of the carouse, reached a certain point, they often became combatants, twice in your sight in the driveway of the Carroll estate.

Never mind.  When John's mother called us in for breakfast, the brotherly rivalry was ended.  Either Carroll's mother or his ex-wife, Lucille, served a platter with warmed, moist washcloths.

Other frequent guests included a Major Baumgarten, who insisted on loaning you his Jaguar saloon, and the producer, Jed Harris, who often congratulated you on your choice of an employer and who told you on several occasions that John Carroll would have had a better career if he hadn's been so handsome.

Nothing you wrote while in Carroll's employ was ever produced, but as in so many previous and subsequent situations, production, publication, or their absence, didn't mean you were not learning things of immediate and eventual value.

At one point where you began to suspect your time with Carroll was cominng to some sort of closure, he took you into his bedroom suite, gave you five or six suits he no longer wore, stuffed five hundred-dollar bills into your pocket and said, "Lad, I wish there were more."  At this point, he made you swear you would never change your name, threatened to return from the dead if you did.

Years, but not too many, later, you were writing under the pseudonyms of Craig Barstow, Walter Feldspar, Adam Snavely, and Gail Spencer, an indication of your prolific output.

Earlier today, while waiting for responses to the edits by your editor at Penguin/Random on a title by Craig Barstow, you put some of the things you'd learned from John Carroll into play--you added a rascally character to the outline of yet another Craig Barstow western.  The character is named Julian Lafaye, born in New Orleans, wishing to make a name for himself in the mineral rich northwestern portion of theNewMexico territory.  The Lafaye character comes on stage first with the name Jake Carroll.  The protagonist will discover the duplicity.

For complete disclosure, John Carroll was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, as Julian Lafaye.  For greater disclosure still, were a person to consult the book pages at the Amazon store, he'd find two Craig Barstow titles from 1960, one announced for March of this year (2022) and yet another for August of this very year.

John has indeed returned to haunt you.  Your payback?  Bringing him on stage once again, recalling Jed Harris's observations and thus determined to rough him up a bit.

Saturday, December 25, 2021

Some Notges on Inevitability

 Not too many writers or composers of whom you can admire for their ability to use the right word at the right time, the appropriate note in the immediate moment.  Mark Twain and Willa Cather stand as your standards for that type of composition.  Surely the late, lamented Joan Didion, the yet productive Deborah Eisenberg and Francine Prose define that category for you.

Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, and, more recently, Maurice Ravel, fill those musical needs.  You can read the mentioned writers or listen to the musicians for the immaculate power of choking the next, inevitable moment in a composition, a fact that denders them beyond inventive or melodic.  You read and listen for inevitability.

When you have written something, you scurry back over it, looking for what Flaubert called "the right word," le mot juste.  

You owe your morning routine now to Francine Prose, who, via an interview, revealed to you her pleasure at the daily "Spelling Bee" feature in The New York Times.  You are given seven letters, two of which are vowels, inclusive of a letter in the center, which may be either vowel of consonant.  Your job is to pick as many words out of that seven-letter panoply as you can.  Words must be at least tour letters long.  No proper nouns. You earn points, one for a four-letter word, as many as fourteen for longer words.

The "Spelling Bee" has for the moment eclipsed your interest in the crossword puzzle.  There are hundreds, thousands of words sifting about in the unused spaces of your brain folds.  When you attempt this fresh puzzle each day, you're reminded of the words you know and do not use unless they appeal to your non-rational sense of fit.  Yes, of course you use some logic,some memory when you select a specific word,  You rely on your individual sense rather than the dictionary's assigned priority of the meaning and use of a word.

You're fondness for the music of Maurice Ravel comes from the beyond rational understanding of tonality, into the inevitability of how his phrases take you toward a celebration of emotions. You read and reread Twain and Cather, Eisenberg, Prose, Mansfield, beyond the story.  You already know how the story ends.  You reread for the feeling.  Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when you listen to the first four segments of Noble and Sentimental Waltzes or At the Tomb of Couperin you have been taken on a journey that leaves you at the desired destination, charged, enthusedtransformed from your everyday self to your composing self, eager to chose words that will provide a pathway to inevitability.

Friday, November 26, 2021

A Promotion to the Bigger Sandbox

When you attended your favorite elementary school, you looked forward to the time when you would be shifted from the smaller play area and its smaller sandboxes to the play area on the east side of the main building.  There awaited not slides not swings but large wooden packing crates in which the mere setting of a foot caused an immediate transformation and a major supplement to the imagination.

You are of an age from whose heights you can see traces of evolution in the social and cultural forces that forged you or, better still, caused you to forge behaviors, attitudes, techniques.One such cultural force was the era of printed materials into which you were born, an era where the so-called "Pulp" magazines flourished.

Although you fancied comic books as a younger reader, this pulps lit up news stands and magazine racks with a dazzle of color and adventures opening the outskirts of such terrains as the Western, the mystery, the "other' worlds of science fiction, and those shrewd, beguiling outskirts of fantasy in which things were as they seemed until they became portals to other universes and rules of behavior.

Your early hopes for publication offered you realistic rates of payment, both financial and artistic terms.  If you wrote well, you might be paid as much as a penny a word.  Someone who read such a story might remember it with fondness for a few days after reading.

A recent trip to the Amazon books page caused you to see one of the many effects of your previous age and your present one. There, along a book you'd written under the pseudonym of Craig Barstow back in those speculative, adventureous days of 1961, offered itself as an item for sale in the same panel as a book you wrote under the same pseudonym, which will be published in February of 2022.  No typos there.  A sixty-one year gap.

The publisher for the first book has long since vanished from the list of active producers of novels in a publishing era that might well be called "the massmarket paperback era."

This is not to say that your forthcoming novel will be in any form other than a massmarket paperback, but the former had a fifty-cent price while the latter lists for seven ninety-nine.

The years have been good to the earlier work; it now lists for fourteen dollars (none of which you will see as a royalty or merest acknowledgment of your efforts).

Your takeaway from nostalgia after viewing the two titles in such proximity--at the time of writing the first, you were aware of the desire for a sufficient speediness to allow you to write enough words per month to pay for rent and groceries.  Your rate of production has vastly declined because of your immediate goal now.  Every word must earn its keep.  Every scene must interest you, keep you alert, wondering what those individuals of your creation are up to.  What will they do next, and how well will you be rewarded for the outcome of their interactions.  No amount of money can pay for anything less.

Thus have you moved from the small sandbox for writers to the larger one.

When you removed your shoes after a day in the small sandbox, your toes were covered with granules of sand.  When you remove your shoes from a day of working at this stage of your life, your toes are covered with the granules of unfinished narrative.

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Eine Kleine Nacht Music

 In your long history of attempts to put words on the page with meaningful outcome, you've had numerous encounters with the necessary element in the publishing equation, the editor.  One of the earliest editorial comments on your work you remember--after all these years--came after you'd turned in copy on schedule for a regular column in the now defunct Citizen-News, a newspaper circulated through the western segment of the Los Angeles of your upbringing.

The editorial comment: a diagonal line running through each of the four pages you submitted. No other words were necessary. You understood their meaning. The editor who drew these diagonals took added moments of his time to write these words "Too long. Too wordy. Cut."

Between that editorial experience and the present moment in which you compose this, you have experienced more encounters with the editorial process than you can remember. Indeed, you cannot say except to make wild guesses about the numbers of essays, reviews, short stories, and novels you have published.

In the space between that early memory, you have another, at least five years later. Another kind editor at a now defunct publication in the so-called confessions magazine category wrote you a note accepting a "confessional" you wrote, telling you a check was enclosed in keeping with the five-cents-a-word pay rate. She went on to remind you that she'd rejected nearly four-fifths of the submissions you sent her because, among other things, they were too funny. She reminded you that most of her regular authors had a much higher rate of acceptance.  "You don't write to confess," she wrote, "you write to laugh. Think how much happier you'd be if you wrote for publications where laughter had greater value than confession."

Between that note and the most recent note from a personediting you, circumstances have changed. You've been editor in chief of five different book publishers, an executive editor of at least three literary journals, and even now are the poetry editor of a literary journal.

In more recent years, a collection of your short stories found its way into publication. In an exchange with the publisher, you gave reluctant agreement to the translation of the title used for this blog post into its English translation, "A Little Night Music."  That story concerns a troubled musician in the midst of his discovery of love, appreciation, and acceptance. The location is quite specific, the bed of the person with whom he encounters these valuable conditions.  In the background, he hears what at first sounds like a large, wounded animal.  He later discovers the sound is his host's ex-husband, whom she had to rid herself because of, among other things, his tendency to violence. Hence the title, made even more ironic, to your sensitivity, with the Mozartian title and subsequent publication in German.  You have a cultural DNA that renders you uncomfortable even at this remove when you hear German being spoken.  All the more reason to use the Mozart title rather than the English title.

At the moment you write this, a novel is due in a matter of weeks, an editor has just sent you a setof page proofs for one last chance at changes or finding typos. Indeed, you found a typo in the spelling of the publisher's name. Your goal is to make the novel under way the best thing you've written.  You have the equivalent of the most recent novel in page proofs as an example of something you hope to improve upon.

All these years, your nature has never been one project at a time. Thus this project you work on in odd moments while reading final proof on a recent novel and working on what you hope to make the best outcome yet.  This "other" project is a short story, "La Fie aux Cheval du Lin," clearly French, its title the exact title of the French composer, Claude Debussy.  French is by no means whatsoever your native language or any language over which you have some control.  To the extent that you might be able to play "Chopsticks" on a piano, you have some awareness of French words.  So why not call the story "The Maid with the Flaxen Hair"?  There is a maid with flaxen hair in the story. Her effect on the protagonist and hison her are heavy.

You first became aware of the song when you were wildly in love with a maid with flaxen hair, hoped to marry her, hoped to exchange effects for the remainder of your lives.  The song was introduced to you by a piano player who used the French title. You'd never heard of the title or the melody. Nevertheless, it evoked a vision of the maid with flaxen hair of whom you write here.

You wish this story to become the most insightful, evocative, and memorable of your long career. You are already at work, arguing with an unseen editor, determined to keep this title in French.

All you have as a consequence of the seventy-odd years you've spent trying to get things down on the page in some meaningful way is the notion that each thing you attempt must be approached with the goal of making it your best yet.

You are fortunate in your literary agent; she is a gifted editor. You've only moments ago looked at her "suggestions" on the first five chapters of your work in progress. The editor who sent you page proofs of the last completed novel has had reasons to show exasperation with you--as well, you have reasons to show exasperation with some of her suggestions.

You still have, working on your behalf, over a span approximating seventy years, that generous man who drew diagonal lines--delete lines--through your copy.

And you have yourself, with a greater sense of what to do and what not to do when you begin to compose.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Ave Atque Vale, Angela. Hardly Knew You

Under ordinary circumstances, when you bring a newcharacter on stage for appearance in a novel or short story, you putter with your equivalent of a casting call, build an individual with traits and talents in some relationship to the story. Your first chore is to make sure there is some form of chemistry between that character and the protagonist.

Next step--you do a quick survey of individuals you've known in real life, whisk away some of that character's traits, shake the way a seasoned bartender shakes a cocktail, then you begin to write. As specific examples of this process at work, a former publisher for whom you worked and a former department head at a university you taught have turned into an aggregate of a quirky, self-involved sort of antagonist, someone the protagonist must suffer to some degree with each encounter.

Enter Angela Ayers, who came to life only two days ago as a means of bringing historical and attitudinal information on stage relative to a fictional town in New Mexico for your current project, The Robber Barons.  When you began sketching a few notes for her, you realized she is entirelyfrom whole cloth. You don't know anyone from real life who in any way approximates her.  You wish, in fact, that there were someone like her because you would immediately have a crush on her.  That said, you put her to work. You were not surprised to discover, after you reviewed yesterday's pages, that your protagonist has a crush on her. He's not quite aware of the fact, but he surely will come to realize the chemistry of his attraction when he catches himself wondering if he can lure her from Albuquerque, where she runs a ladies' clothing emporium, to San Francisco, where her education, attitude, and intelligence could lead her to even greater levels of achievement.

The thing he doesn't know about her yet--but will soon discover--is that her father was not adverse to robbing the occasional train in Texas or the Arizona Territory. You only discovered this a few days ago. Given her polar-but-largely-admiring regard for her father, Angela also tried her hand at holding up a train, found herself enjoying the experience to the point where she did it again, and yet again.  Thus she has become an invention of such singular importance that an outcome for her you'd not considered will have to be put into play.  She has to go, which is to say she needs to be killed off. You have no idea how this will come about, but you have forty or fifty thousand words of text in which to make your discovery.

This represents the uncomfortable parallel between creating stories, with which you have some experience, and playing God, with which you have neither experience nor art. The closest you can approximate the former experience with the experiences of real life resides on the loves and losses you've experienced all these many years. You've lost grandparents, parents, friends, lovers, animals; you've lost a beloved sister and a beloved wife.  One of the many reasons you're embarked on this book at all is to get a sense of a contemporary character, the 2020's, as it were, and his grandfather. You already know how your grandfather character is going to take the loss of Angela Ayers. You've been there, done that. Now, you get to write about it.